Events in last weekend’s 27th annual Tennessee Williams Festival focused on women who had a strong historical influence.
Williams, an American playwright originally from Columbus who spent much of his time in Clarksdale, had a sister, Rose. Rose, along with Minnie Brewer, daughter of former Gov. Earl Brewer, and Civil Rights leader Vera Mae Pigee were some of the ladies highlighted.
The festival ran from Thursday through Saturday.
“We focused on Rose and women in Clarksdale and sort of the life that went on at that time, which wasn’t necessarily easy,” said Karen Kohlhaas, co-director of the Tennessee Williams Festival.
Brewer’s family lived in Clarksdale until her father was inaugurated as governor in 1912.
Kohlhaas said Brewer was active in women’s suffrage and also published a newspaper called The Woman Voter. A historic performance took place on Friday at the house Gov. Brewer lived in.
A scene from the play “Beautiful Agitators” was acted out at the Coahoma County Tourism office Friday afternoon to illustrate Pigee’s accomplishments.
Those at the festival had the opportunity to tour the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum on Sharkey Avenue. The museum opened during the 2018 festival and Kohlhaas was influential in making it become a reality.
Eva Connell, a docent, gave the tour of the museum on Saturday.
Williams, who was called Tom as child, shared a room with Rose when they stayed with their grandparents. Their grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin, was the Rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church next door and stayed there.
Williams and Rose shared a room in the right corner upstairs.
“He said in some of his works, ‘I could look out and see the church roof,’” Connell said.
Connell said Rose had issues and a lobotomy was done on her when she was in her 20s, but she stayed close to her brother, even when she was in a home. Williams took care of her until he died in 1983. Rose died in 1996.
“The daddy was not in Tennessee Williams’ life very much,” Connell said. “He was a traveling salesman and an alcoholic, so young Tom Williams and his sister, Rose, stayed here with the grandparents, while he was the Rector at St. George’s Church.”
There were four rooms upstairs.
“I think a lot of people are surprised that Tennessee Williams had such a connection to Clarksdale and used so many names from Clarksdale in his plays,” said Connell after talking with individuals who came through the museum.
Jason Shelby, the current Rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church, spoke about Williams and Rose.
Shelby did acknowledge the dysfunction in their family.
“The reality is, every family, in some way, is a dysfunctional family,” he said.
Shelby also said everyone claims their family is the worst and tries to one up each other. He said he learned more about Dakin as he researched the family.
“Mr. Dakin was a good priest and a good father and a good grandfather,” Shelby said. “But he had his problems. He had his issues. Say what you want about today’s society about how so many people wear their hearts on their sleeve for the world to see. Take that over suppressing everything.
“Mr. Dakin felt the need to suppress a lot. They passed it on to their daughter who passed it on to their children.”
Through it all, Shelby said Rose most likely suffered severe trauma.
As a result, Williams wrote much about his sister’s life.
Shelby said Williams wrote about how Rose influenced him as both a writer and person.
The play “Beautiful Agitators” looked at Civil Rights history and the particular role Pigee played.
Tarra Slack played Pigee, while Aallyah Wright played her daughter, Mary Jane Pigee.
“I am really excited about the opportunity to do this scene from Beautiful Agitators in this context because it really does show how Tennessee Williams’ legacy continues to live on in some degree in Clarksdale, Miss., because we have some playwrights right here who are actually contributing to the literary scene presently here and now,” Slack said.
The scene they acted out was a sit-in from 1961 dealing with voter registration and civic literacy. Mary Jane Pigee organized the sit-in.
“I would say it’s very important because it was historical moments that happened in Clarksdale at a time where black folks were fighting for the rights and equality for us,” Wright said.
A few weeks after the sit-in, Wright said Vera Mae Pigee and Civil Rights activist Dr. Aaron E. Henry boycotted merchants downtown.
“It’s Clarkdale history,” Wright said. “It’s Mississippi history. It’s just important that we keep telling these stories.”
The Mississippi Humanities Council has been a big funder of the festival since its inception. Executive director Dr. Stuart Rockoff appreciated how history has been more integrated into the festival in recent years.
“We’ve been real excited about the festival this year,” he said. “I love how they move from different places to different places to show different historic spaces in Clarksdale. I like how they integrate a scene and then have a scholar who talks about what the scene means. It kind of integrates the arts and humanities in a very compelling way and you can tell by the large crowd showing up at every program.”
New features were also added to the festival in 2019, including an acting class Kohlhass led at the Cutrer Mansion Saturday morning.
“That was a new feature to the festival,” she said. “We’ve been reaching out to lots of colleges and we wanted to provide programming for college students. I’m an acting teacher in New York City, so we did a college level acting class.”
Kohlhass teaches at Atlantic Acting School. She was glad the festival was reaching out to the younger generation and others.
“I think it’s really important to keep the festival going for the younger generation, so that they understand what an important writer he was in America’s history,” she said.
“I hope we continue to increase our audience. We have wonderful audience turnout this year and they continue to expand our programming.”